What Causes Shortness of Breath After Eating?

Medically Reviewed By Meredith Goodwin, MD, FAAFP

Causes of shortness of breath after eating include underlying medical conditions, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and food allergies. In severe cases, anaphylaxis can cause shortness of breath after eating. Shortness of breath is a feeling of being unable to draw a full breath or get enough air into the lungs. After eating a large meal, the food puts extra pressure on the diaphragm and chest. This may lead to shortness of breath.

While shortness of breath may happen naturally after eating a large meal, other conditions can also cause it.

This article looks at the possible causes of shortness of breath after eating. It also discusses when to contact a doctor, when shortness of breath is a medical emergency, and more.

Food allergies

A person is eating noodles.
Hernandez & Sorokina/Stocksy United

Some people may experience shortness of breath during an allergic reaction to certain foods.

Shortness of breath within a few minutes to a few hours Trusted Source Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Governmental authority Go to source  after eating may indicate an allergy to something you ate. 

Other symptoms of a food allergy can include:

  • hives
  • rashes
  • flushing
  • diarrhea
  • vomiting 
  • abdominal cramps
  • loss of consciousness
  • coughing or wheezing
  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • tingling or itching in the mouth
  • swelling in the face, tongue, throat, or lips

Learn more about food allergies.

Anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that occurs quickly and requires immediate medical attention.

During anaphylaxis, the body overreacts to an allergen, such as a certain type of food.

An anaphylactic reaction may have all the symptoms of a food allergy but come on quickly and severely. You may also have other symptoms, such as:

  • fainting
  • agitation
  • low blood pressure
  • shaking or convulsions
  • extremely fast heart rate
  • feeling like your throat is closing
  • high-pitched breathing sounds called stridor
  • confusion, or other changes to your mental status
  • a feeling that something terrible is about to happen

Anaphylaxis is a potentially fatal condition. Roughly half Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source  of all deaths from anaphylaxis occur within the first hour after symptoms begin. 

Call 911 immediately if you or someone near you shows signs of difficulty breathing, especially if accompanied by other symptoms of anaphylaxis. 

Learn more about anaphylaxis.

Anaphylaxis is a severe reaction to a trigger, such as an allergy, and is potentially life threatening. 

Symptoms can come on quickly and include: 

If you or someone around you develops these symptoms, you should: 

  1. Check to see whether they have an epinephrine pen. If so, read and follow the instructions to dispense the medication.
  2. Dial 911 (or a local emergency number).
  3. Lay them down. If they have vomited, lay them on their side. 
  4. Stay with them until emergency services arrive. 

It is possible for someone to need more than one injection with an epinephrine pen. If symptoms do not begin to clear after 5 minutes, give a second injection if one is available.

Aspiration

Aspiration is inhaling food or stomach contents into your lungs. Chronic aspiration is a common problem Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source  that affects elderly individuals, children with neurological conditions, and people with long-term intubation.

Aspiration is common with medical conditions that make it difficult to swallow. However, it can also be a one-time event that may cause symptoms including:

  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • coughing
  • unusual lung sounds

Aspiration can be a serious medical emergency. Call 911 if someone near you has difficulty breathing and cannot clear their airway or breathe. 

Gastroesophageal reflux disease

GERD is a medical condition in which stomach contents flow backward from the stomach into the esophagus or mouth. GERD can trigger symptoms of asthma, which can cause shortness of breath.

Other common GERD symptoms include:

  • regurgitation, or stomach contents coming back up into your throat or mouth
  • heartburn, or a burning sensation in the middle of your chest
  • difficult or painful swallowing
  • chronic cough or hoarseness
  • chest pain
  • nausea

Learn more about GERD.

Asthma

A person with asthma has a hyperresponsive airway and chronic airway inflammation. These cause frequent breathing difficulties.

Although food is not a common asthma trigger, foods high in the preservative sulfite can trigger symptoms of asthma.

Foods and drinks high in sulfites include:

  • dried vegetables and fruit
  • packaged potatoes
  • shrimp
  • pickled foods
  • beer and wine
  • bottled lime and lemon juice

A food allergy can make your asthma symptoms worse. Contact your doctor for advice if you frequently experience shortness of breath or other asthma symptoms after eating. Your doctor can help you determine which foods trigger your asthma.

Learn more about asthma.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

It is not uncommon for someone with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to feel short of breath after a large meal. 

COPD causes air to become trapped in the lungs. The lungs become hyperinflated and take up more space than usual in the chest. After a large meal, the full stomach pushing against the lungs may make it difficult to take full breaths.

Other symptoms of COPD include:

  • chronic cough
  • wheezing
  • whistling sound when you breathe
  • chest heaviness or tightness

Learn more about COPD.

Hiatal hernia

Hiatal hernias occur when the top part of the stomach or another internal organ pushes up and through the diaphragm.

Sometimes gastric contents will back up into the esophagus and cause reflux of food. After a large meal, you may have shortness of breath if food flows back into your esophagus. This causes aspiration or irritation of the nerves in the airway.

The most common symptom Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source  of a hiatal hernia is heartburn. You may also experience a chronic cough.

Learn more about hiatal hernias.

What are the treatments for shortness of breath after eating?

Treatment for shortness of breath after eating can depend on the underlying cause. Treating an underlying medical condition may help you manage or prevent shortness of breath.

In addition, you may be able to reduce the risk of shortness of breath after eating by:

  • limiting foods that can cause bloating, such as salty foods
  • avoiding foods that trigger an allergic reaction
  • eating smaller meals more frequently
  • choosing complex carbohydrates, such as vegetables, fruits, and whole-grain bread

Your doctor can help you manage or reduce shortness of breath after eating.

If you become short of breath during a meal, stop eating immediately. If your symptoms do not improve or breathing becomes difficult, call 911.

If you have a known allergy, carry an epinephrine auto-injector, such as an EpiPen, with you at all times.

When should I contact a doctor?

Contact your doctor if the shortness of breath occurs often after meals or if you have additional symptoms, such as chest pressure or abdominal pain.

Your doctor will determine the cause of shortness of breath after eating and recommend treatments.

When is shortness of breath after eating a medical emergency? 

Shortness of breath after eating may be a medical emergency if a severe allergic reaction is causing it.

Call 911 if shortness of breath worsens or does not go away, especially if there are other symptoms, such as: 

Do not drive yourself to the emergency room. Call an ambulance. The ambulance crew can begin treatment and lifesaving measures if needed.

How do doctors diagnose the cause of shortness of breath after eating?

Your doctor may begin diagnosis with a physical examination and a full medical history. They may ask questions about your symptoms, such as:

  • Does shortness of breath occur with certain foods only?
  • How often does it happen?
  • Do you have other symptoms?
  • Do you have shortness of breath at other times or only after eating?

Your doctor can then recommend tests and procedures Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source  to diagnose the underlying cause. Tests may include:

Your doctor will explain the tests and answer any questions you may have.

Summary

Shortness of breath after eating may result from a large meal pressing against the lungs. It may also be the result of a medical condition, such as asthma, GERD, or COPD.

In some cases, a food allergy causes shortness of breath after eating. In severe cases, a food allergy can cause anaphylaxis, a severe reaction. Seek immediate medical help in case of anaphylaxis.

Your doctor can carry out tests to determine the cause of shortness of breath after eating. They can advise you on medical treatments as well as recommend steps you can take to alleviate symptoms. These may include eating smaller meals more frequently and avoiding known triggers.

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Medical Reviewer: Meredith Goodwin, MD, FAAFP
Last Review Date: 2023 Mar 3
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